by Leora Jasper
I have thought often on what it means to be a brother. Brother, of course, is an outdated term. But it is a word central to the stories of Genesis. For me it means, in a deep down kind of way, being in community with others.
When the world is created, God creates humans, but he does not create families nor civilizations. Adam and Eve live together in Eden, but they do not have children there. What is fascinating is what happens after they are expelled. They are compelled (by God, but also, presumably, their own self-knowledge) to multiply. Yet this multiplication is painful. (The pain is key to Eve’s punishment by God.) Suddenly, these first humans who lived in ignorance of death are confronted with life: finite and limited. A life that once seemed so vast and fertile has been narrowed in scope. Everything you create will die.
Imagine that conversation between Cain and his parents: “Son, you will only have so much time here, and it will be hard and laborious. Eventually, it will all be gone.” And then he does it. He works hard. He toils. He sweats. He suffers. But he does it because he knows that there is this creator who created his parents, who made his existence possible. He offers what he has and what he has is insufficient. It is everything he could accomplish, and no favor is given to his work. Yet his brother, his comrade in suffering, receives that affirmation. Their toil and suffering is rewarded with pleasure and appreciation. So he kills his brother. He lies (the second great lie of humanity) and takes him out to the field. And he kills him. He hates himself for what he has done. He lies to his God, even though his brother’s blood cries out from the earth. Humans have become keen, swift liars in a single generation. It’s unsurprising. Cain did not hate his brother, but he certainly resented him. He certainly could not live in a world where his brother had more than him.
Cain and Abel are only the first brothers who could not live together, but they are not the last. Brothers continued to take and replace one another. Ishmael was Abraham’s first-born son, and he loved him. Yet when Isaac was born, Sarah could not longer tolerate another woman’s son who may compete with her own. Abraham had to send the elder away to make room for the younger. Yet he loved Ishmael deeply. He implored God to bestow his promises upon Ishmael, though God refused. When Sarah sought to banish Hagar and Ishmael, Abraham again begged the Lord to protect them. Abraham carefully prepared Hagar and Ishmael for their journey with a father’s tenderness. When God later commanded Abraham to kill Isaac, his only remaining son, Abraham proceeded with quiet resignation, chopping the wood in silence. God had taken one son from him, so why not the other?
Isaac did not die that day. Yet it seems he was always more his mother’s son. When Isaac finally married, it was by seeking a wife from his mother’s family. (Sarah was Abraham’s half-sister, though it seems that the mother matters more than father.) He was comforted after his mother’s death by Rebekah. I do wonder if he was also comforted when his father died, when he came together with his estranged brother Ishmael to bury their father. These brothers could not live together, perhaps because one would one day have to kill the other.
Jacob gripped his brother’s heel at birth, lived in the tents while his brother hunted for the food that he ate, and strategically negotiated for his brother’s birthright. Isaac, blind and dying, loved both his sons, though he preferred Esau. Esau — the hairy, ruddy, strong man — was his chosen successor. Yet Rebekah and Jacob deceived Isaac; they covered his smooth skin, killed a goat from their own field. They undermined Esau with the knowledge that Esau would kill Jacob. Jacob leaves, hoping his brother would recover in a few days time. Jacob stole everything Esau expected in his life, and he thought his brother would resign himself. Unsurprisingly, Jacob did not return for two decades. The time was adequate for the brothers to travel together for some time, to acknowledge one another as brothers. Yet they parted. These brothers could not live together.
Who would be shocked to learn that Jacob would love his youngest sons the best? They were the children of Rachel, the woman he loved and toiled for. Granted, what father thinks will happen when they lavish gifts on the youngest and ignore the eldest? Reuben hoped that his brothers would only torment Joseph when they threw him into that pit, and he planned to return later. Perhaps we should remark on the evidence of human progress in the feelings on the others, who could not bring themselves to kill Joseph, even though that desire burned in them? Selling your brother into slavery is hardly a gracious act, but I do wonder why they could not kill him. They could not live together, they could not bear to see such favor given their younger brother, they could not tolerate his dreams of them yielding and bowing to him. But they could not kill him, even though they wanted to.
And Joseph experienced such trials. But he was intelligent and capable, which was not sufficient to overcome his brothers, but it was sufficient to survive. And when the famine comes, and he holds the power to save his brothers and their families, Joseph weeps. He weeps when he sees them. When he sees them a second time, he must leave the room and weep again. He lies to them, he resents them, he most likely hates them. He controls their destinies, he has all the power in the world, and he is the one weeping. He sees their desperation, and he attempts to help them. Yet he also lies. He lies for them to bring Benjamin to him. He even drinks with them, and then the next day frames Benjamin for stealing his goblet. Joseph is in pain. What did he intend through this charade? To make his brothers suffer? To kill the only brother left that they love? The brother that they are desperately trying to protect, when they so ruthlessly disregarded his own dignity? Joseph cannot do it. He cannot take revenge. He cannot kill his brothers.
But this is not the same kind of forgiveness that Esau offered Jacob. This is something so profoundly different because of what happens next. Joseph invites them to Egypt, he insists that they come to live with him. And they do. It was not just enough to forgive. Civilizations and societies are not built through estrangement. You can forgive someone who you will never see again, but to forgive the person you see every single day. To say, “I will live with you, despite the terrible things you have done.” That is a transcendent proposition.
When Joseph brings his two sons to see Jacob, Jacob is blind, much like his father was. There is no deception here either. Jacob blesses both sons at the same time, but he says he will be giving the superior blessing to the younger son. Joseph protests, because he wants the elder son to have what is owed him. Jacob does not consent, and gives the younger the birthright blessing. There is no deceit here, no lies. Brothers are not given the same thing, but no one kills the other. They continue to live together as a family, as a society, in Egypt.
Brothers will never have the same of anything. One will have more — more money, more power, more influence, just more. And brothers will do utterly terrible things to one another. They can either kill each other, or they can find a way to live together.